American cardinals getting more buzz as conclave nears

posted at 8:01 am on March 11, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Despite earlier skepticism over their prospects, two American cardinals continue to get buzz as potential papabili in Rome.  The New York Times reports on the prospects for Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is at least getting noticed if not rising in the estimation of conclave watchers:

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, has become an object of fascination in Rome for the fluency of his juggling act: he is simultaneously head of the United States’ most prominent Roman Catholic diocese and president of its national conference of bishops, tapped by the Vatican for numerous prestigious assignments and by network television anchors for their most prized interview spots.

In the weeks since Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to retire, the possibility that Cardinal Dolan could succeed him has been largely dismissed on the theory that his biggest strengths — outsize personality, Everyman affect, relentless public cheer — mark him as distinctively American in a way that makes it unlikely he would be chosen by his colleagues.

But in recent days, his joyful and telegenic orthodoxy is getting new attention in Rome; on Thursday, a prominent Vatican reporter, Sandro Magister, highlighted his qualifications, calling him “the consummate candidate, who represents the impulse in the direction of purification.”

Cardinal Dolan has colorfully dismissed speculation that he could be pope, saying that he expects, and is eager, to return to New York. Nonetheless, this papal interregnum has become an important period for him, presenting an opportunity for him to use mass media to reach Catholics in his vast and diverse archdiocese, and to elevate his stature as he faces battles with President Obama over health insurance regulations and with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York over a proposed liberalization of the state’s abortion laws.

He shows an easy demeanor; he is unfailingly positive, even when asked difficult questions. But even he is quick to say that he represents a new style, not a new point of view, for Catholic bishops. In an interview here, before the cardinals decided to stop speaking to reporters, he described the church’s teachings as a gift to be treasured, but said, “Let’s perhaps work on a way to wrap it in a more attractive way.”

That has been the aim of the “new evangelization” all along, which is why the media has mainly missed the mark on the importance of this papal transition.  The new Pope won’t be changing church doctrine — in fact, that’s impossible for any pontiff, who becomes the guardian of doctrine — but the Catholic Church wants to change the way in which it communicates the teachings so as to be effective in the 21st century.  Dolan has certainly demonstrated an ability to get past what George Weigel describes as the old right/left paradigm and represent Catholic Christianity to a broad spectrum of people.

Cardinal Dolan isn’t the American getting the most buzz here, however.  It’s one thing for the New York Times to notice an Archbishop of New York; it’s quite another for Corriere della Sera to notice the Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley.  The quiet, humble, and accomplished reformer has drawn more attention here than perhaps anyone would have predicted.  Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen reports on the focus (via Deacon Greg):

If the readers of Italy’s paper of record, Corriere della Sera, had any say in the matter, the choice for the next pope would be clear: Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.

Corriere today asked eight contributors, including their own Vatican beat writers as well as noted Vatican-watchers, to name their top three picks to be the next pope. O’Malley was mentioned by five of those eight experts, putting him in a tie with Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil, and just one mention ahead of Angelo Scola of Milan.

Two other Americans, Timothy Dolan of New York and Donald Wuerl of Washington, got one mention apiece.

Where O’Malley really separated himself from the pack was in an on-line readers’ poll on theCorriere web site. There O’Malley drew 36.7 percent of the vote, as of roughly 6:30 this evening Rome time. The Boston prelate far outpaced Scola with 17.9 percent and Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines with 14.3 percent.

What’s the appeal?

First of all, O’Malley is a Capuchin Franciscan, and the Franciscans are wildly popular in Italy. They’re considered the closest religious order to the poor and to ordinary people, the guys you can rely upon when the chips are down. They’re also considered the polar opposite of the usual clerical stereotypes – not haughty or imperial, but simple, honest, and utterly unpolitical.

Second, the brief profile offered by Corriere della Sera to help voters make up their minds describes him as “one of the principal exponents of the policy against sexual abuse in the Catholic church.” At a time when the Vatican once again finds itself fighting off criticism related to the abuse scandals, that reputation looks pretty good.

It’s not just Corriere della Sera, either.  After arriving at the Vatican press office today, Italian news channel Rai 24 had a segment focusing on O’Malley, complete with an animated graphic focusing on a headline in another Italian paper quoting O’Malley as saying, “I’m returning to Boston,” when asked about his papal chances (“Ritorno al Boston”).  NBC’s Boston affiliate updated his diocese on O’Malley’s activities

WHDH-TV 7News Boston

“This Sunday is also very special to us because we are preparing for a conclave on Tuesday. The catholic world is united in prayer with the confidence that comes with our faith. Jesus has promised to be with us always, to give us his Holy Spirit and guide us towards our father’s house, for our loving God awaits,” said Cardinal O’Malley.

The cardinal finished with a prayer before the conclave.

“Let us pray that the Holy Spirit illuminates the church to choose a new pope who will confirm us in our faith and make more visible the love of the good shepherd,” he said.

Cardinal O’Malley is seen as a real contender for pope. He is a favorite in polls among the Italian people. However, O’Malley himself says he plans to return to Boston and those closest to the cardinal say that hasn’t changed at this time.

“He doesn’t take it too seriously, it’s not something that he’s sitting there aspiring to, in essence, he’ll go the way the church, the [C]atholic [C]hurch and God calls him to go,” said Terrence Donilon, Archdiocese of Boston.

Of course, all of this speculation in the press means very little in terms of the conclave itself. Last week, the press focused on Cardinal Peter Turkson; if we don’t have an end to the conclave by the end of this week, they’ll focus on someone else next Monday. I’ve heard talk among journalists that no one should be surprised if an early vote produces Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, and Cardinal Odilo Scherer still gets plenty of mention, too. However, the prominent attention to an American cardinal is at the very least a mark of the relative strength of the American church.

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